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PREVIOUS: No One Gets Out of Her Alive

FIRST: The Chosen Few

Part of me is aware that I’m being boiled, physically and spiritually. Part of me is bubbling away in agony that I can barely process. Part of me isn’t quite here anymore. She’s in Natasha’s bed. Not sure where the bed is or even if it’s real.

Her skin feels real. Her hair tastes real. Her eyes look real. Simulacra? Who cares? Less prep and she’s still the best fuck I’ve had in… I don’t know how long. I could have been down here for years already. Or seconds. Long enough to think about it.

Goddamn I hate thinking. Always leads back to questions leads to concerns leads to the reminder that yet again this isn’t actually my heart’s desire. What the fuck is? Just once, why can’t I be happy with what I have? What the hell am I looking for?

I read Natasha’s answer in my reflection on her eyes: Who cares? I don’t need to give you a Superman speech to tell you that neither of us will ever be happy with what we’ve got. We both became witches for the same reasons: to make our selfish desires come true.

I consider my selfish desires. Money. Violence. Sex. Violence. Motion.

Wrong! Natasha’s nails trace a pattern on my chest and I reconsider. Helping people. Violence. Sex. Violence. Fully automated luxury gay space communism. Yeah, I do want to help people. I like being a violent motherfucker but I’m not a fuckin’ fascist. But also…

But what?

But that’s so goddamn complicated! I don’t want to spend my life responsible for other people. World revolution is great and all but that’s work.

You literally invented a whole new type of magic for me. When have you ever shied away from work?

For you! All of that was for you! I can’t find it in me to care about people.

Rukmini cares about others. The Rookie burned that away.

Like you’re burning me away right now? The Rookie’s a nickname, not a persona. Everything you hate about her you hate about me! Whatever nerves I have left spark furiously in an acid bath I can’t see.

That’s who you want to be? Natasha‘s incredulous. A killer and a robber and a – a cigarette smoker? What possible fucking reason could you have to take up cigars?

I say the bad part out loud: because I want to! Because it feels fucking great to smoke and kill and rob — okay I’m a monster. But not a real one. Who am I hurting? Banks? Rich pricks? Other gangs? You’re one to talk, founder and CEO of Chappell Wraith Securities!

Natasha’s eyes flare and between blinks I want to scream as my brain bubbles in nuclear soup. Yes, Ruku, I’m a fucking monster. I hoard wealth and magic and the power of the devil herself for my own twisted schemes. I’m a class traitor and a literal fucking demon – same as you. How can you enjoy it?

You like being human? Being laid up and watching your choices made for you and feeling empty where your energy should be? You like that pit where you keep being punked by fucking Nazis or laughed at for biting concrete – helpless to actually do anything by yourself – I’m so mad now it hurts more than the acid. You lived that for five years. I did it for twenty. I won’t go back.

You don’t have to, Natasha pleads silently. Take strength in us. In me and Diya and Ingrid and Zabu and –

I can’t! I’m mercurial and homicidal and unreliable and I love it. I’m a monster and it hurts too much not to be. I’ve lived with your hate and I can live with every terrible choice I make – but not without my heart. I’m sure the world will be better off with you in charge but either kill me or give it back because I killed the devil once for it and I’ll do it again!

Natasha melts. The bed melts. My skin melts. The simulacrum dissolves into something I don’t have the organs to describe anymore – except as burning green pain running up what’s left of my spine.

The pain doesn’t speak to me directly. Its language is more literal than that. Now that Natasha’s meaning isn’t boxed in by words, I get it. Whoever she thinks I was, even without a monstrous inner voice, she doesn’t see that in me. I’m too contaminated. Whatever’s left will have to be reconstituted from the ground up – into the Rukmini she deserves.

Yeah. I’d like that too. Dying is a lot more fun than it sounds. It’s frustrating not standing for anything. And if the choice is taken out of my hands…

I’d reject it.

This isn't me. I won't let it. Giving my choices over to someone else is cowardice, and I'm no coward. Who am I?

I'm Rukmini motherfucking Mahakali. My choices are mine. My failure is mine. My destiny is mine. I'm not going to hell twice without a god damn fight!

Focus! My focus settles into a pair of hands clawing upwards, pulling me up out of a scuzzy green sea and onto unsteadily cohering feet. A billion mossy hands surge over me, scraping across every inch of my cherry-red form and pulling me down to my ankles before survival instinct moves my legs for me. The sky itself is an endless wrinkled palm and the horizon consists of a dozen colossal fingers entwined together. I’m not sure where I’m wading at first – then I see it.

A colossal six-fingered hand rises out of the ocean like a jade pillar from a lost civilization. Someone’s curled up on top of it. She’s beyond the need for clothing now, beyond the need for form now – a bright green silhouette to my blaring red shadow – but I’d recognize that scornful stare anywhere.

She casually snaps her fingers at me and the universe under my waist folds in a way that instantly tears me off of my pelvis. I feel my guts materialize under me just so they can burn spilling out. The sea catches me as I fall and immediately drags me under. That’s not fair. I can’t die here. Not when I’m this close – not to my god damn heart –

Something spears me from underneath. Two black thermoplastic hands reach through my guts and find the space where blood should pump, complete with action, frame, barrel, and trigger. One hand procures a bullet: not when we’re this close to killing her. The other slams it in me and fires.

Hell gets smaller as I shoot back to life. Smoke roils off the invisible line across my midsection where Natasha killed me. Our eyes meet in mutual understanding. Hell is only big enough for one of us. We’re beyond the need for words. We want what our heart wants, and our heart wants whoever needs it more.

A pitch-black arm bursts out from under my left breast with a six-chambered revolver in its thermoplastic hand. Another one bursts out alongside it, then four, then eight, then more. A bouquet of hand cannons sprouts from the void under my lung and takes aim at Natasha.

She snaps her fingers. I pull my triggers. Natasha’s spine vanishes into iron mist as my arms become flammable confetti. My ears ring in agony, then don’t. My neck burns, then doesn’t. My legs won’t respond, my hands are gone – how am I seeing my back, my legs, the ground – my head is – being pulled under

Five plastic fingers reach into my mouth and hook under my red-rimmed teeth before tearing me out of the drink into the air. Five prosthetic digits slide another bullet into my headless chamber. This one even has a jacketed tip: she doesn’t get to choose your life for you. Ten fingers pull the trigger and shoot me onto my feet. Hell gets a little smaller as it glues what’s left of me back together with nitrocellulose. I can’t even find a seam around my neck, only a point where my skin is black powder instead of flesh.

I look up at the throne. A hollow green silhouette, like a three-dimensional connect-the-dots, slumps against its remains. Orange mist that stinks of iron hangs where everything under Natasha’s skin used to be. Half of the throne’s fingers are missing and the other half are burning stumps of bone. Tiny green appendages like six-fingered spiders skitter across its surface trying to stitch it back together.

I take a breath as her corpse picks itself up. Just enough flesh forms to connect the dots and remake her shape. Six orange metal paws burst messily from her shoulder joints, fumbling blindly around their new owner. One of them shoves itself into the space where her heart should be and cranks. Hell gets smaller as my engine roars and spins up a citrus-colored spine out of gasoline for her. We exchange furious smiles.

Natasha snaps her fingers and the sea explodes around me. A tidal wave of demons surges out from the throne, crested by dragons and tigers and wolves and flies with dripping black teeth and burning green eyes. It crashes over and swallows me whole. My limbs and skin and organs are reduced to ground meat, mashed between jaws with too many teeth, forced through rubber guts filled with acid and hate. Five years of pain strip out my thoughts and replace them with hollowness where my heart should be, agony where my thoughts should be, and an overriding knowledge that I deserve every bit of what’s happened to me.

The vermintide recedes. Hell becomes still. A thousand bits of minced me float on the surface of the sea, with just enough awareness to know this is karma. I can’t remember what it’s like to not be food. I don’t want to remember. I want to be better. I need to be hers. I want her to sculpt and command and free me from this prison of meat and pain and –

YOU NEED TO BE FREE OF HER! I am a thousand guns sprouting out of each seed of meat, clasped in fiber-plastic trees with six-chambered flowers facing the throne. I am every bullet sliding into each chamber, spinning in place against the firing pin, and kicking through the barrel. I am the fusillade blowing supersonic booms through Natasha’s surging demontide and burrowing into her flesh. The violence is familiar – her body is cathartic – I am the snarling beast clawing my way out of her. Hell gets a whole lot smaller to rebuild me as I splash into the muck.

I look up to see how much smaller Hell will get and almost bash my head on the ceiling. Oh. That small: a twelve-fingered cell for a grudge match five years in the making, down to the final rounds. I turn to look at the throne and see Natasha’s bright green fist. She knocks me flat on my ass and straddles me in full-mount. No more monsters, no more weapons, no more room. Just us.

Hell shrinks to here and now: trapped under the only person I’ve ever loved, so helplessly, hopelessly angry at her that I wish she’d kill me just so she’d feel even worse about it. A caustic cocktail of thoughts boils over in me – emotions I can’t verbalize, blame I can’t place, the sick splitting in my head where I can only think about how much she’s hurt me –

And how much have I hurt her? Why can’t I see everything she’s done for me? We were going to save the world together. Despite everything I’ve done, everything I’ve put her through – put the world through – Natasha still believes in me. She wants me by her side. Why do I keep pulling away?

Because I won’t give my heart up for other people’s sake. Without it I’m nothing, I can do nothing, and I would rather die than stay that way. The rest of the world can do without it but I can’t. I need it more than anything the way you need me and can’t explain why any more than you can.

An electric arc crosses between us, connecting the things pumping fuel through our forms. If Natasha could articulate the depth of her feelings – make me see the world like she does – she wouldn’t have to psychically inject them into every being on the planet. If I could do the same – then I wouldn’t have come here to burn her life’s work to the ground.

Hell squeezes us into a single embrace. Our lips find each other’s throats. Sweet, hot fuel fills my mouth while my blood drains into hers. I’m cognizant only of working my way down her body as she folds around mine, chewing through her collarbone and digging through her ribs while she tears through my sternum to get at my heart. She tastes like cold iron and strawberries and feels like a screwdriver working through my chest.

My teeth close down on a throbbing, four-chambered heart at the same instant I feel something burst under my lungs. I swallow the last bit of Natasha’s engine – it sears what’s left of my throat – and hope I taste like sulfur in her mouth as the universe collapses on top of us.

LAST: Escape Velocity

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